Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language Review

Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language
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Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language ReviewIn his book on Child Language, Aphasia, and Phonological Universals, Roman Jakobson observed that "a babbling child can accumulate articulations which are never found within a single language or even a group of languages: consonants with the most varied points of articulation, palatalized and rounded consonants, sibilants, affricates, clicks, complex vowels, diphthongs, and so forth." But then the child loses nearly all of his ability to produce sounds in passing from the pre-linguistic phase to the first genuine stage of language. "Perhaps the loss of a limitless phonetic arsenal is the price a child must pay for the papers that grant him citizenship in the community of a single tongue."
Daniel Heller-Roazen is the adult who refuses to pay that price. The imaginary country that he inhabits is not limited to one language community, and he freely trespasses across academic territories or cultural boundaries. I first came across his name as a translator of Giorgio Agamben's essays. He apparently translated the Italian philosopher while still a graduate student in comparative literature, and Italian is only one of the many languages in which he has proficiency. Echolalias is punctuated by quotes in Arabic, Hebrew and Russian in their respective alphabets that I am not able to decipher. But readers should not feel excluded by this show of erudition, as the most culturally distant references are made familiar through the author's intellectual clarity and generosity. Never has a Syrian poet from the eleventh century or a chapter from the Kabbalah seemed so close to our contemporary concerns.
Surprisingly for one who obviously must have spend much time learning languages, this book is mostly preoccupied with the forgetting of language. From the "apex of babble" represented by a newborn's polyglotism to the great dispersion of languages contained in the myth of the tower of Babel, Echolalias develops the thought that "exile, in the end, may be the true homeland of speech; and it may be that one accedes to the secret of a tongue only when one forgets it." The Hebrew language contains a letter that no one can pronounce, but as Gershom Scholem summarizes it, "all that Israel heard was the Aleph with which in the Hebrew text the first Commandment begins". The French "e muet" is an obsolete phoneme but it still plays a decisive role in classical poetry: one cannot perceive the rhythm of a French verse if one does not take into account the possibility of its presence in the syllable count. The long and repeatedly threatened life of "h" evokes the definition that Paul Celan applied to poetry: "the trace that our breathing leaves in language".
The life of languages reveals the lingering presence of endangered words, phonemes or letters. But Daniel Heller-Roazen doesn't believe in the analogy between language and living species, and he rejects the politics of language conservation based on the premise of "linguistic endangerment". As he notes, "fabricating the death certificate of a language is no easy task, and it may be that even the most official document of linguistic decease reflects less the tongue to which it is assigned than the convictions of the bureaucrats who produce it." This is not to say that languages do not disappear, like the Old Proven├žal in which the Troubadours's verses were written, but language should best be thought in terms of flux, as a process of constant transformation. "It is possible to conceive of a passage that is not that of the generation and corruption of living beings; it suffices, for example, to think of the sand that desert winds continuously set in motion and that inevitably slips through the hands of the one who grasps hold of it." The capacity of change defines a language, and as one linguist remarked, "one can tell that a language is dead when one does not have the right to makes mistakes in it". In the end, "language has no being beyond its drifting parts, and its sole consistency may lie in the layers of forgetting and remembrance that tie and untie it, in ever-changing ways, to those before it."
Echolalias is made of twenty-one short chapters, which often start from a scholarly curiosity and conclude with an aphoristic formula. The book is not easy to sum up, but it forms a coherent whole that thematizes the notion of the forgetting of language. Heller-Roazen practices 'comparative literature' with exacting philosophical rigor and unique tact. His enthusiasm for pure erudition is contagious, and his choice of excerpts expands the range of our cultural horizon to unexpected periods and authors. I am not in a position to assess his scholarly contribution to comparative literature or to linguistics. But considering his growing bibliography, he will soon be recognized as the author of an oeuvre and a thinker to come to terms with. Reading him was a pure pleasure.Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language OverviewJust as speech can be acquired, so can it be lost. Speakers can forgetwords, phrases, even entire languages they once knew; over the course of timepeoples, too, let go of the tongues that were once theirs, as languages disappearand give way to the others that follow them. In Echolalias, Daniel Heller-Roazenreflects on the many forms of linguistic forgetfulness, offering a far-reachingphilosophical investigation into the persistence and disappearance of speech. Intwenty-one brief chapters, he moves among classical, medieval, and modern culture,exploring the interrelations of speech, writing, memory, and oblivion.Drawing hisexamples from literature, philosophy, linguistics, theology, and psychoanalysis,Heller-Roazen examines the points at which the transience of speech has become aquestion in the arts, disciplines, and sciences in which language plays a prominentrole. Whether the subject is Ovid, Dante, or modern fiction, classical Arabicliterature or the birth of the French language, structuralist linguistics or Freud'swritings on aphasia, Heller-Roazen considers with clarity, precision, and insightthe forms, the effects, and the ultimate consequences of the forgetting of language.In speech, he argues, destruction and construction often prove inseparable. Amongpeoples, the disappearance of one language can mark the emergence of another; amongindividuals, the experience of the passing of speech can lie at the origin ofliterary, philosophical, and artistic creation.From the infant's prattle to thelegacy of Babel, from the holy tongues of Judaism and Islam to the concept of thedead language and the political significance of exiled and endangered languagestoday, Echolalias traces an elegant, erudite, and original philosophical itinerary,inviting us to reflect in a new way on the nature of the speaking animal whoforgets.

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